Complexity and Community are crucial for rethinking economics

What could society look like if we do economics better?

Do mine eyes deceive me? I came across this post by Evan Davies on the BBC website, where he blogs about the changes taking place in economics. For those fond of the TL;DR, he says that economics has been, and still is, in need of a radical overhaul, given that most economists did not foresee the 2008 financial crisis, and that economics has not addressed its flaws in the decade since. Davies sets out the “two Cs” that make “neoliberal” or orthodox economics models risky (to put it mildly), and these are Complexity and Community. The short version is that people are Complex souls who live in Communities. Well, duh! Some of us have a been banging on about this for a while now.

Davies is clear not to make a straw man of mainstream economics though. And this is an important point. Microeconomics – the small-scale interactions between actors – has been remarkably successful in boiling down our collective lives into theories, formulae, and models that guide economists towards understanding how we act (and then nudging us in the right direction to make better decisions). But macroeconomics – the larger scale stuff that includes GDP, interest rates, international trade and investment and so on – tends to draw on the microeconomic theories and scale them up. But as we all know from experience, the more people you include, the more complicated it becomes to plan anything. And that’s before you start on complex interaction patterns across communities and societies.

Why have things started to change now? As I wrote in a previous post, change occurs gradually. Many successful careers have been built on the status quo of neoliberal or neoclassical, orthodox economics. The core of the academic economics community has developed, advocates, practices and teaches this approach. So revolutions, as in most areas of life, tend to be the exception. When we start to question the entire shape and direction of a discipline, there are myriad interests at play that all need to be reoriented. The mainstream journals, senior economists, and general momentum is geared towards neoclassical theory, and its implementation as neoliberal economic policy. In short, we are steering an oil tanker rather than a Mini Cooper.

Secondly, neoliberal economics is plugged into and reflected in the political mores of the day, and neoliberalism in politics remains in the ascendancy. A theory of economics that retreats from and questions this is bound to raise eyebrows. Perhaps then, eleven years might be a relatively short timespan for the reorientation, or evolution, of a discipline.

So what changes are actually happening now? The past decade has seen a wave of literature questioning the type of society we want to live in, both locally and globally, and the type of economics that might realise this.

But there are more recent projects turning explicitly to the way we do economics and its role in society that are much more exciting. The NIESR has a project underway Rethinking Macroeconomics, which is ESRC funded. The IFS is launching a project looking at inequality in the UK and targeting questions like the kind of society we want (a particularly timely question in the light of the most recent UN Report citing poverty as endemic in the UK). And then there are the centres rethinking traits of orthodox economic theory like the Paul Woolley Centre at LSE, the full title of which is “The Paul Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality”. The Centre essentially asks what happens if the frictionless markets featured in economic models suffer from, well, friction.

But what alternatives are there? If you’re familiar with some of my previous posts, you’ll know I’m a fan of socio-economic and econo-socio-legal approaches that take economics back into the social sciences. There are myriad alternatives though within these disciplines, including relational work, actor-network theory, community lens, network analysis, systems analysis, and many more. Zooming out somewhat, historical, geographical, psychological and anthropological approaches can also contribute to an understanding of economics as it really is performed in the real world.

But, why should we care? To make a bold, and controversial statement, economics is usually one cause of most social issues facing us today. What do I mean? The rise of populist politics caters to the anger and frustration of the “have nots” in society (economics). Austerity as a response to the financial crisis enacts neoliberal economic theories (economics). The lack of living wages and the rise of insecurity, the precariat, and the gig economy has resulted from technology and a reluctance of government to intervene based on neoliberal economic theories about the free market (economics). Climate change and global warming continue unabated because of the economic consequences of actions to tackle environmental issues head on (once again, economics).

In short, if we want to get society right, we need to get economics right. And that means a retreat from the belief that there is one “right” way of “doing economics”. It means recognising (or re-recognising) that economics is about how people act and interact. And that we do not always act rationally, or even in our best interests. Until economics models and formulae reflect this, we are left with a hollowed-out version of economics that cannot reflect the full complexity of real life. And this is something we all pay the price for. A broader, richer understanding might help us spot the next financial crisis looming on the horizon.

The Science of Economics? What Works, and How Much…

We do seem to be talking more about economics – what it should do and look like. But there is still a whiff of revolution about calls for the discipline to be more evidence-based and, well, scientific. This article, by Philip Aldrick in the Times yesterday, argues for more careful scientific approaches, and this is worth noting. Of course, in the natural sciences, this would be taken as read. Drugs need to be extensively trialled before they are sold and used to treat disease in humans. But for some reason, in the social sciences, theory and ideology have the ability to shape policy just as much as evidence.

Aldrick’s piece cites two studies launched by Nesta, a UK Innovation think tank, roughly seven years ago. The first was a retrospective review of the effectiveness of business clusters; do small businesses do better when they are closely located and can share location and labour advantages? The second was a randomised controlled trial on whether tax relief for small creative companies worked. The results of the studies were not their most important findings however.

For the sake of finishing a story, the first study proved relatively inconclusive, and could not find any clear correlation between clusters and growth. The second study found that tax and financial incentives were helpful in the short term for small creative businesses, but after 12 months any advantage had faded.

So, what was the main impact? The reason these two studies are remarkable are for their illustration of research methods. While retrospective reviews – generally the majority of most empirical work in the social sciences – can only look for correlation, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) can go deeper, further, and can identify causative factors. In other words, we can target specific factors and identify why things happen. This is important because it means we can be more scientific about what works, how it works, and why. And this means we can begin to base policy on evidence rather than theory. RCTs also offer a way of measuring the extent of policy impacts. By having a test group and a control group, we can gauge the extent to which a policy really makes a difference. And that means we can evaluate whether a policy is financially and economically viable. So, RCTs offer a way of seeing not only what works, but how much.

Why is this news? Similar to other recent posts on here, there is increasing discussion of economics and how the discipline can be improved in the mainstream media. Aldrick’s argument is that economics – both the research and the formulation of policy – can and should be more scientific in its approach. And to this end he calls for more RCTs and longer term studies testing causation before policy is enacted. The government has launched the Business Basics Fund with Nesta to carry out trials investigating, among other things, productivity. UK productivity lags behind that of other countries, attributed generally to poor management practices. But how can management practices be altered to improve productivity?

Questions like this lend themselves readily to RCTs where different techniques can be trialled in comparison with a control group. Nevertheless, there are questions of macroeconomics that are not suitable for trials. We cannot test interest rates or tariffs, for example, against control groups. And this remains a problem for the larger questions tackled in macroeconomics, where theory remains a significant influencer of policy.

Calls for greater use of careful empirical data in shaping economic, legal and social science policy is not new though. Economic sociology, economic sociology of law, and sociolegal approaches have long stressed the need for analysis and understanding to be based firmly in the real world, on real data, and about real people. Increasing access to big data and AI could enhance this. As Aldrick states, “Economics is a social science. Why not make it more scientific?”

Waiting on the market?

The UK government has finally declared a climate emergency. This is great news of course, but what does it really mean in practice? And what is this doing on a blog about law and economics?

The government in the UK has subsidised the purchase of new electric and low emission vehicles in a a bid to support and stimulate the market. But at the end of 2018, the government reduced the available subsidy rates, the makes and models of cars that were eligible, and capped the number of vehicles that could be purchased under the scheme. It’s really no surprise then that the rate at which electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles have been sweeping the market has fallen since the subsidy reduction. Indeed, sales of plug-in hybrid cars fell by one third in the period to April 2019. This is, of course, against the backdrop of a clean air crisis, a backlash against Diesel engines and emissions scandals, and the Extinction Rebellion protests calling for every tighter emissions limits.

So, it would make sense for the government to support the clean(er) transport industry, including electric and low emission vehicles. More to the point, the industry seems to be crying out for a level of oversight, investment, and general co-ordination. While some companies have started to set up charging networks across the UK, these are often not cross-compatible, resulting in up to 15 different types of charging points that drivers of electric cars have to navigate. What’s more, charging points tend to congregate in wealthier areas of the country, while residents in poorer areas struggle to find a single charging point. On top of this, most experts agree that if the electric car revolution is to take off, fast charging – or the ability to charge a car to 80% in 30 minutes – is essential for the success and sustainability of the network. The problem is that the national grid in the UK is simply unable to support the required wattage, or provide the increased levels of electricity required. We would, literally, face a melt down. The answer is a massive investment and overhaul of the underlying infrastructure.

So here we turn to economics. Once again, the problem is not technology. We have the knowledge, the tech, and the skills to make the green revolution happen. It comes down to economics.

The UK government has repeated its mantra that it is waiting for “the market” to step in and develop the charging networks for electric vehicles. Meanwhile, “the market” currently complains that there is insufficient basic infrastructure available for them to build on. This is not a new dilemma, and as Mariana Mazzucato has documented, a great deal of the tech that has driven progress over the last half century has developed out of state-funded R&D. Steve Jobs did not “invent” GPS or the touch screen; he took the technology and packaged it up in a shiny box.

It feels too obvious to state that a network of charging points for electric vehicles across the UK needs to be integrated and cross-compatible. It also feels obvious to state that this network needs to be connected to a grid that has the capacity to charge the nation’s cars, if we actually want people to move to cleaner, greener, options. It also feels like common sense to point out that this level of integration, planning, and investment needs to come from the state, as the only entity with sufficient oversight, patience, and funding. Or, at very least, it needs to come from “the market” working closely with the state to achieve clearly set targets that can establish a nationwide network that avoids duplication and achieves integration for the greatest value and usability.

The markets for broadband and mobile phone coverage are instructive here. There are still areas in rural Somerset in 2019 that have no mobile phone coverage. Understandably, where the market is left to decide where to invest, it will do so where the returns are greatest, and this is in towns and more densely populated areas. Given the basic underlying premises of business and shareholder value maximisation, this is to be expected.

The problem arises when ideology and a die hard belief in neoliberalism takes hold and denies the valuable role that state involvement can play. Writing in 1944, Karl Polanyi emphasised the utopian nature of the ideological divide between state and market, and criticised the belief that the free market was entirely self-regulating. He pointed out that both market and state relied on the other, and that some degree of state oversight and involvement was necessary if society was to avoid the worst effects of the free market. To use the example of the telecommunications failures, the government can step in at this point and regulate the operation of the market to ensure that everyone has access to broadband, whether they live in London or rural Somerset, and regardless of the cost to the company bidding for the contract.

At the same time, the market benefits from state involvement, and the examples of infrastructure such as an enhanced national grid, green power and a network of clean vehicle charging points on which the green transport industry can flourish is an archetypal example of where the close collaboration between the two spheres has never been needed more.

A call to arms? Or just another wave of frustration with the status quo?

In the years following the 1929 crash, economists responded with a flurry of new and innovative ideas to better understand the bigger questions of how the economy works. Keynesianism, over the decades, came to be shaped more by the political mores of the time than any true adherence to what Keynes actually wrote, while Hayek’s free market theories present questions that we are still grappling with.

There have been other flurries of activity calling for “better economics” over the decades, and the 2008 financial crisis sparked another wave of calls for a deeper and more accurate understanding of what is actually going on. Clearly, while microeconomics might have given us the answers to some questions, macroeconomics has a way to go in understanding how the world works. But really, since 2008, what has actually changed?

“Very little” appears to be the general answer to this. There are several reasons here. In academia, the way your research is assessed and the way that promotions are awarded tends to come down to publications that support, rather than challenge, the mainstream (more on this later). In business, monopolies are unlikely to campaign for better antitrust regulation and enforcement. And we have a generation of politicians who have been taught (indoctrinated in) orthodox, mainstream economics and have been told that this is the only way to do economics and that it works. But there are calls for diversity, plurality and different approaches appearing.

I thought it might be helpful to set out some of the institutes and organisations that have appeared since the financial crisis calling for a rethink of economics. In the UK, Promoting Economic Pluralism (PEP) aims to change the way economics is taught in universities, and sets out an ambitious accreditation for pluralist economics teaching that it aims to have up and running by 2020. The blog for the group can be accessed here, and charts some interesting developments, seminars, and movements that have the common purpose of changing the way we do economics.

Other research programmes include “Rethinking Macroeconomics” at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) in London, which has secured ESRC funding for a project looking at how we could do macroeconomics better.

In the US, the Institute for New Economic Thought sets out to challenge the dominance of mainstream economics by funding research, engaging in public dialogue and driving forwards a new way of thinking about economics. Their goals are listed on this page.

Both institutes are engaged in highlighting and tackling the crisis of conformity in economics – in the way it is taught, the way it is practiced, and the way it is thought about in academia. The conformity within academic thought is more of an institutional problem, as this touches on publication, promotion, and professionalism within academia.

The problem here is that to progress as an academic you have to publish, preferably in the “top” or most prestigious journals. Obviously, if you’re trying to do something innovative or outside of the mainstream box, or even worse trying to tear down the existing box and build a new one, it is unlikely the more prestigious mainstream journals will accept your paper for publication. They have strict criteria for what they accept, and usually this means conforming to mainstream standards and not challenging or undermining the entire field. The publication industry actually reinforces the mainstream way of doing things, and in economics, that means reinforcing methodologies and frames that led us to the financial crisis.

As I mentioned in the previous post, there is a lot to be said here for greater education. Not just in universities on macroeconomics 101 courses, but more generally and broadly. We need a much higher level of economic literacy across the board, so that society is able to engage with – and more importantly challenge – economic ideas, plans, models and conclusions. This needs to happen hand in hand with an expansion of economics methodologies and approaches, and an appreciation of economics as a social science that is about perfectly imperfect and irrational people.

We all need to hope that the voices currently calling for diversity and plurality are more successful this time than previous waves of soul searching have been.

Group think, and the state of sociology

Five eminent sociologists recently reviewed the state of sociology for the Times Higher Ed. You can (and should) read the post here. It makes for interesting, if slightly depressing, reading. For those fond of the tl;dr approach, each of the five sociologists review their experiences of sociology teaching and research today, and recount the somewhat inferior position to which sociology has been resigned within the social sciences. This is for a variety of factors, but I want to dwell on two in this post; the diversity (or fragmentation) of the subject, and the unavoidable political accusations that are inevitably hurled at it (just see the comments on THE).

Fragmented sociology

Much in the same way as the social sciences have fragmented, drifted apart and become silos of endeavour over the past century, sociology has more recently succumbed to a similar fate. We have a sociology of sport, a sociology of arts and music, a sociology of x, y, and z that talk at, rather than to, each other. At the same time, we have economic sociology, legal sociology (or as it tends to be referred to in the UK, sociolegal studies), and then the discipline struggles to distance itself from anthropology and offer something different (apart from research into the present day and the present society).

But what does it really do? Why do we need it? And why is it fair to level the same accusations at sociology as we would at, say, a badly conducted physics experiment?

The political connection

There is always a political connection – politics is about social rules and beliefs, and sociology is about understanding these. They are two sides of the same coin. Look at the impact of Anthony Giddens’ “third way” in forging New Labour’s direction in the years after Blair’s election to power.

And this tends to be one of the main accusations thrown at sociology for why it should not be publicly funded in the same way that STEM subjects are – that we would be funding “socialists”, “Marxists”, and look where that experiment ended… (I paraphrase here). The comments in response to articles banging the drum for public funding of the social sciences generally have at least one reference to socialism.

But wasn’t the notion of the free market also derived from the social sciences (economics)? Hayek and Polanyi published in the same year (1944) but Hayek’s Road to Serfdom received much greater acclaim at the time than Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Arguably, 99% of us are the poorer for this, and still feeling the impact of this twist of fate. But the politically motivated accusations against public funding of the social sciences recur consistently, and in a way that does not seem to apply to capitalism, neoliberalism or the rise and rise of neoclassical economics. These seem to be treated as the natural order of things these days, backed up by the received wisdom of neoclassical economics and the laws of social interaction it has “discovered”. Any investigation into performativity will tell you differently.

Can we study societies? No? Then why bother?

What is the point then? The point is that we need to shout louder about what sociology – and the social sciences more broadly – can do for society. About what it already has done. And about what we stand to lose without publicly funded research into the social sciences, both to understand society and to shape the type of society that we (collectively) aspire to. Do we value the rule of law? Do we value independence of the judiciary? Parliamentary supremacy? The free market? Labour regulation? Because these all started out as “good ideas” that someone had. You may not agree with all of these, but if we had never had “the social sciences”, chances are we would not even have “the State” now. We would still be living in a Hobbesian state of nature.

The response to this is that we have all these “good ideas” and solid institutions that we value now, so why continue funding investigations into how society works? This is a little like Francis Fukuyama’s end of history argument, that has been roundly debunked, notably by John Gray’s argument that history is cyclical. The things that we value need to be protected, otherwise they begin to disappear. And that means shouting loudly about what they have done for us, especially in the face of nationalistic, populist sentiment. Politics in the United States has shown that, and the neoliberal drive to set markets free and dial back the state in the UK has seen inequality rise and the safety net of the welfare state feel less secure than ever.

Why publicly funded?

Michael Burawoy’s chapter about the future of the university as a centre of knowledge production in an age of marketization and regulation makes some interesting points about the funding of research. Marc Spooner has also written an interesting post on the drive to publish and the perverse incentives now in place in higher education and research. Taken together, these posts provide an overview of the direction the sector is moving in, and the question that we keep coming back to is “for whom”? Who is paying for the research? Who is paying for the publications? And does this matter?

The Coburn Amendment in the US has seen a scaling back of public funding for social research into anything that does not directly apply to the national economy or the national defense. In Australia, the “national interest” test has prompted fears that curiosity-driven research will be pushed out altogether. In both Australia and the UK, there are ever higher demands for researchers to demonstrate the impact of their work and its benefit to society. The (somewhat flawed) riposte that is habitually trotted out here is Newton’s discovery of gravity; what is the impact of this? How does it benefit society? Newton would have failed under the current research excellence framework, and would probably not have convinced a funding body – let alone a Research Council – to pay him to study this.

The marketization and commercialization of the entire HE sector raises a number of questions that should probably be saved for another post. The point is that the application of the free market to the production of knowledge about society and for the good of society will produce skewed results. Yes, industry can and does fund social research – into how to market products and services more effectively, how to sell more, and how to understand consumer behaviour. Industry is unlikely to be interested in funding research into the big issues mentioned above – the big issues central to society. Why would they? These are things that we are mostly unaware of but impacted by every day. These institutions, beliefs and policies shape our interactions, our ambitions, and the options available to us in almost every aspect of our lives. The welfare state actively funds the companies to pay lower wages and remove labour rights through the very provision of the welfare state. The production of social knowledge is therefore, I suggest, a public good that should be publicly funded.